During the mid-19th century, most native societies of Central North America effectively collapsed. The US government was consolidating its hold over the country’s central territories, and many native peoples in the region faced considerable military, political, and cultural pressures. In the face of this genocide, some tribes—primarily the Potawatomi, Anishinabe, and Fox Indians, primarily from the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa)—attempted to save their knowledge by using an idea quite rare in native history: writing. Various medicinal formulae, usually combinations consisting of 2 to 8 plants, were recorded by carving images of the plants on wooden sticks. Approximately a dozen of these “prescription sticks” are currently known to exist in public or private collections.
Even though these objects are commonly referred to as “prescription sticks,” they clearly do not denote a prescription but a pharmacopeia—a collection of formulae for making various medicines, usually (but not always) multi-ingredient compounds. The sticks are illustrated with sets of images, with each set separated by small tick marks. They are intended to be read left to right along the bottom, then turned 180° and read again from left to right. The stick should then be flipped over, at which point the reader repeats the process. Often there is an inch or two of un-inscribed space at the end of the fourth edge.Top stick: Prescription stick detail. Photo ©2008 Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI, specimen number 1954.803Bottom three sticks: Three prescription sticks in the Cranbrook Museum Collection. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives. Photo ©2008 Daniel Moerman
There are other objects similar to prescription sticks that document Native American culture—but not many. For instance, some tribes kept “song records” or “song boards,” which were illustrated on wooden sticks in a manner similar to prescription sticks. Some bark scrolls and wooden boxes were inscribed with markings, depicting various rites. The Denver Museum of Natural History holds a “Kickapoo prayer stick,” relating the order of a prayer service, which was used by members of the Kenekuk religion. Likewise, the northeastern Algonquin peoples had a tradition for making petroglyphs—either paintings on, or carvings in, stone, which may have been similar in purpose to prescription sticks, song boards, and prayer sticks.
It would appear that the prescription sticks were highly valued objects—at least to their makers. Such sticks were occasionally stored in such places as otter bags, along with rare and highly valued medicinal ingredients. The otter was a revered animal for some tribes; for instance, it was considered an important ancestral creator of the Algonquin people. Interestingly, museum records regarding the purchase of prescription sticks by collectors or other museum agents indicate that collectors typically paid very modest sums for them—usually less than $10.
A particularly interesting prescription stick belongs to the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Quebec (see photos on page 53). It was originally purchased by Floyd Schulz, who probably obtained it from a Potawatomi of a Kansas reservation. Schulz owned a large collection of Native American materials, which was sold sometime early in the 20th century. The prescription stick was apparently bought by someone in Munich who ultimately sold it to the Canadian Museum in Ottawa in 1973. While several other prescription sticks include small amounts of paint, this one is unusual in having a good deal of color. Furthermore, it has an additional series of entries in the middle of the stick and seems to have been inscribed by multiple authors. Images on the stick include a snake, a possible duck, a turtle, various plants, and an image of either a human or a spirit.
One of the biggest mysteries of prescription sticks is the identities of the herbal ingredients that they describe. My comparisons of several of the remaining sticks have found no clear matches among them of more than one or two images. Moreover, it would appear that a person would need to have had prior knowledge of the herbal formulas before the prescription sticks would be of much use.
Some attempts have been made to identify the formulas depicted on certain sticks. The collector of one prescription stick, which currently belongs to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC (see photo on page 48), interviewed its owner, Pamnuknuk, a Kansas Potawatomi, about the object on November 28, 1910. “Each symbol,” he wrote in notes preserved by the museum, “represents a certain herb; some grow in Oklahoma and Kansas, some in Wisconsin.” He noted that there were 10 “prescriptions” on the stick, and he provided names and uses of the compounds. Such names and descriptions included:
- Wakiyebnawan—makes a tea and drink for internal pains;
- Akwak’miagwuk—kept in the otter skin medicine bag. It revives anyone who has been “shot” in the Meda ceremony;
- Mathwaya—it will make you fat if you eat it. Known also to the Kickapoo;
- Wap’konpuk—this is pounded in a mortar and applied to the wound if someone has been shot;
- Wakiyebnawan (different from the earlier prescription of the same name)—a tea of this is given for internal pains with cough.
Other “prescriptions” noted on the stick include a formula concerning childbirth, a concoction for protecting warriors from enemy weapons, a treatment for venereal disease, and a treatment for snake-bite. The collector of this prescription stick, however, did not learn from Pamnuknuk the names of the individual plants depicted on the stick.
In another case, a collector appeared to be tantalizingly closer to discovering the names of depicted plants. Milford Chandler collected three sticks in the 1920s that now reside at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (see photo on page 51). These may be the best documented of all the prescription sticks. They were apparently made by the great-great-grandfather of the woman from whom Chandler purchased them—a man who would have been born around the year 1800. Chandler made rubbings of the sticks on lined paper and an anonymous source wrote the Potawatomi (or perhaps Fox) names of the plants next to their respective images. Unfortunately, the rubbings and written names have since largely faded, and no one has been able to translate them into English.
In the 1940s, Frank Speck, then at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with Robert Hiatt, then director of the Cranbrook Institute, to attempt a translation. They were never able to find anyone, native or otherwise, who knew the names of the plants in both languages. It is therefore highly doubtful that a successful translation can be found more than 60 years later!
Yet another reason why it is doubtful that the sticks will ever be successfully translated has to do with the cultural origins of peoples’ senses of imagery. Today, it is not uncommon to find medicinal plants that were commonly used by native peoples in ornamental flower gardens. In many cases, such plants have been included in flower gardens for aesthetic reasons, not in recognition of their medicinal properties or histories. The plants represented on the sticks rarely look at all like the beautiful and fragrant flowers of North American gardens, such as beebalm (Monarda spp., Lamiaceae), yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Asteraceae), iris (Iris spp., Iridaceae), mallow (Malva spp., Malvaceae), or Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Asteraceae)—all common in gardens and all important medicinal plants in various indigenous and other cultures. Thus, it is likely that early 19th century Native Americans may have both recognized and represented plants differently than would contemporary men and women. When comparing commonly utilized medicinal herbs with the depictions on the prescription sticks, it is extremely difficult to find any arguable matches.
Despite the limited knowledge of these sticks and the formulas that they are meant to relate, these items remain valuable testaments of Native American culture and history. The prescription sticks are reminders of the destruction of dozens of cultures and the genocide of the Native Americans, especially since such forces are probably what led to the sticks’ creation. After all, when a culture is under terrible military, cultural, economic and religious assault—and when the logic underlying such a system of meaning begins to fade or crumble— it makes sense to try to “record” such knowledge before it is lost. These sticks further reflect a sense of their makers’ relationship to their habitat and of their detailed knowledge of and connection with the natural world. They can also be interpreted as representing their makers’ deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, represented on these sticks in images no larger than the nail on one’s little finger.
Daniel Moerman, PhD, is the William E. Stirton Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as a member of ABC’s Advisory Board. He has authored several books, including the renowned text Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998). Dr. Moerman has studied prescription sticks for 20 years and has given multiple presentations on the topic, although this is his first print publication on the subject. He has also done extensive research on the role of meaning in the healing process, recently extending that inquiry to the meaning of medicinal plants for Native Americans who used them. His book Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo Effect” was published in 2002 by Cambridge University Press. He is editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Economic Botany. E-mail: email@example.com.